More than 50,000 people died in 2015 from drug overdoses. It's fueled by a powerful heroin mixture that's been on the streets. Now a new one is showing up on the Gulf Coast and in Louisiana, and that has drug law enforcement officials extremely concerned.
"We are in an epidemic in this country. Ninety-one people a day are OD'ing and dying as a result of heroin and opioids. That's alarming. That's scary," said Stephen Azzam, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA, New Orleans Field Division.
He says the drug epidemic and death rate is being fueled by heroin that is mixed with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin. It's so powerful, that officers, both human and canine who just accidentally touch, or inhale fentanyl on a raid, are being rushed to hospitals. If the more than 50,000 people who are dying each year in this epidemic is not scary enough, now comes a new opioid cocktail called Gray Death.
"(It) has made appearances, in, I think Bossier City, Baton Rouge, and I think Jefferson Parish has had an overdose related to that," said Donald Petty, the Deputy Director of Intelligence for the Gulf Coast High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA).
Gray Death looks like concrete and is heroin, fentanyl, and a 1970s research chemical U-47700, street name 'Pink.' They are made in China, then shipped to Mexico where Mexican national organizations combine them and get them over the southern border, or with the click of a mouse.
"You get it online from sources and it's shipped in from Fed Ex and delivered right to your house, right to your front door. We've intercepted a number of these packages," said Petty.
"That cocktail right there could set the tone for where we go with this heroin epidemic in this country. That is an extremely toxic mixture. It's nothing more than playing Russian roulette every time you ingest any of that Gray Death," said Azzam.
When law enforcement makes a bust, they know they are saving lives by taking drugs off the street. But they say they can't do it alone.
"Mothers, fathers, friends, relatives, when you see your friends and you see that this person is having problems, you got to get involved. You have to get involved. It's not just going to be done through an enforcement standpoint," said Azzam.
Carfentanil, which is 10,000 times more toxic than morphine, is also being seen in the U.S. It has not been seen in Louisiana yet.
Agents say if this report creates conversations at home among families, then they are doing their jobs.
From the DEA:
Statistics on Opioid Prescription Drug and Heroin Abuse and Overdoses
The Opioid Crisis:
* Last year (2015), we lost more than 52,000 Americans to drug overdose – more than 33,000 of those from opioids.1
* In 2014 there were 47,055 drug poisoning deaths in the United States - and in one year it increased 11.3 percent to 52,404 deaths. 63% (33,014) of those deaths are related to opioids. On average – 90 people a day die from opioid overdoses.2
* Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids rose 73% (9,580 souls). This is mainly attributed to fentanyl-related overdoses.3
* In the last 10 years deaths have increased 75 percent- in 2005, 29,813 Americans died from drug overdoses.4
* All but one Major League baseball stadium (Dodger Stadium) filled to capacity would not equal the more than the 52,000+ dying by drug poisoning. America is losing the equivalent of a baseball stadium full of people every year to drug overdose.
* Nearly a decade ago, U.S. gun deaths outnumbered opioid-related deaths by more than 5 to 1. Today, more people die from opioid-related causes than from gun homicides.
* In 2015, more Americans died from opioid overdoses than from all drugs: meth, cocaine, and all CPD’s and opioids combined 10 years earlier.5
* Nationally, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, employers are losing $10 billion a year from absenteeism and lost productivity due to opioid abuse.6
* The opioid crisis is growing and the impact of their parents’ addiction on children has been devastating. Every 25 minutes a baby is born in the U.S. suffering from opiate withdrawal. That is 1 out of 200 babies – a number which has increased 500% in 12 years.7 This situation is so bad in West Virginia it necessitated a local hospital to create a special infant detox ward for all of the babies born addicted to opiates. The Centers for Disease Control reports the number of babies born in the United States with a drug withdrawal symptom has quadrupled over the past 15 years.
* The drug addiction epidemic is driving a crisis in the nation’s foster care system. According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) nearly three quarters (71 percent) of states have seen an unprecedented increase in the number of children entering foster care, and parental substance use was cited as the primary reason for this increase. In 2015, 266,509 children were placed in out-of-home care. Sadly, many of these children (18 percent) are infants less than one year old. Across the country, states have reported that infants are twice as likely to be removed from their homes and enter foster care as children of other ages due to parental substance abuse.
* Overdose deaths can even involve the smallest victims. The media has published disturbing images of overdosed parents and grandparents in vehicles with children left in their car seats. Additionally, these two incidents were recently reported in the media:
o In Pennsylvania, a couple overdosed and died together inside their house. Their baby, having no one around to care for it, died several days later from starvation and dehydration.8
o Recently in Massachusetts, a 10 month old baby was exposed to fentanyl inside her residence and had to be resuscitated twice after she stopped breathing. The baby had to be flown to a Boston hospital where she is in stable condition.9
* While Americans make up only 5 percent of the world’s population, we use 25 percent of the world’s drugs and the majority of the world’s supply of opioid drugs.10 Making sure we are using them wisely and carefully is vital to preventing misuse and to stopping addiction before it starts.
* Prescription Drug Break Down (All data from IMS health)
2015 total opioid prescriptions: 184.2 million- total dosage units: 12.131 billion - number of households nationwide in 2015 (U.S. Census): 124.59 million.
In 2015, pharmacies and clinics nationwide purchased more than:
63,000 kg of oxycodone in order to dispense approximately 61.9 million prescriptions (or 4.4 billion dosage units)
52,000 kg of hydrocodone in order to dispense approximately 101.8 million prescriptions (or 6.7 billion dosage units)
25,000 kg of morphine in order to dispense approximately 10.3 million prescriptions (or 668 million dosage units)
1,765 kg of hydromorphone in order to dispense approximately 3.7 million prescriptions (289.6 million dosage units)
520 kg of fentanyl in order to dispense approximately 6.5 million prescriptions (74 million dosage units)
* In 2015, doctors nationwide issued over 184 million prescription for opioid analgesics; enough to put approximately 100 pills into each household’s medicine cabinet.
* Medical professionals who prescribe and dispense controlled prescription drugs are the first and most important point of contact for patients who rely on them, as we do, to ensure they are receiving the right information on use, and who are in the best position to identify signs of abuse.11
* There is a complex balance between patient access to needed medication and preventing abuse. DEA does not and should not be involved in the practice of medicine or in the obstruction of legitimate commerce regarding drug manufacturing and supply. DEA will continue to do our part to regulate drug distribution networks to ensure product availability for the treatments that preserve or enhance quality of life while working with all partners to limit and prevent abuse.
* When evidence of abuse is identified, DEA is committed to use all of the means available to pursue criminal and/or civil cases with United States Attorneys’ Offices across the country. DEA continues to seek opportunities to increase the civil and criminal prosecution of registrants operating outside the law - and has a robust oversight program that deploys a full spectrum of administrative, civil and criminal tools against those whose continued registration is no longer consistent with the public interest.12
Heroin and Fentanyls:
* Heroin and fentanyl-related deaths are increasing across the U.S. - particularly in the Northeast and Midwest. According to the National Forensic Laboratory Information System (NFLIS), fentanyl and/or fentanyl related compounds have been seized in every state.13
* Heroin and fentanyl-related compounds are drugs manufactured specifically to meet the demand of opioid addicts who likely started with prescription drugs. Years of over-prescription of analgesic painkillers left many Americans with an opioid addiction, and
drug trafficking networks capitalized by opportunistically flooding communities with cheaper and more potent heroin, fentanyl and fentanyl-related compounds.
* Fentanyl is 50-100 times more powerful than morphine.14
* Fentanyl continues to be mixed with other drugs to increase potency and profit. In 2016, DEA made seizures of heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine mixed with fentanyl or fentanyl-related compounds.
* The recent and deadly trend of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids being used in combination with cocaine or meth is a familiar one -- using a sedative/depressant followed by a stimulant is what reportedly killed movie stars John Belushi, Chris Farley, and River Phoenix.15 According to DEA intelligence, these combos are even more dangerous now with super-potent fentanyls in the mix and have been nicknamed “Super Speedballs” by users.
* DEA investigations have uncovered rogue manufacturing labs in China who directly supply U.S. distribution networks with synthetic opioids and the chemicals used to make them. In addition, traditional Mexico-based drug trafficking networks with established infrastructure and smuggling routes continue to supply the U.S. with heroin, fentanyl, and fentanyl-based compounds.
* DEA has issued alerts to the public regarding a recent trend where fentanyl is pressed into pill form and marketed as a prescription painkiller. A DEA investigation in Utah recently led to a record-breaking fentanyl seizure that included pill presses which were producing hundreds of thousands counterfeit pills which contained fentanyl. These counterfeit pills are “crazy dangerous” because the user is likely unaware of how lethal they are. According to a medical examiner’s report, this is what likely killed the musician Prince -- and thousands of other Americans last year.
* There has been a dramatic increase in poppies being grown and heroin being produced in Mexico in recent years: in 2013 there was an estimated 11,000 hectares of poppies grown, with a potential production of 30 tons. In 2015 there were 28,000 hectares grown, with potential production of 70 metric tons. These Mexico-based trafficking cartels are operating distribution networks that control the heroin from “the farm to the arm” of Americans addicted to opioids.16
Drug Demand and Addiction:
* According to a study to estimate the cost of drug use to our nation (last done nearly a decade ago) - in 2007, the National Drug Intelligence Center (now part of DEA)
estimated the economic cost to America of drug use was $193 billion -- it is surely higher today.17
* 1 in 7 people are expected to develop a substance use disorder at some point in their lives. It is not clear why some people become addicted and some do not. 18
* In the past year, 20.2 million adults had a substance use disorder.19
* 70% of those who try an illicit drug before the age of 13 develop a substance use disorder within the next 7 years.20
* Almost 2 million adolescents in the U.S. use marijuana. More teens are using marijuana than tobacco, and consider marijuana less harmful.21
* If we can prevent young people from using drugs then it is likely that, as they become adults, they will never use drugs. Statistics back this up: those who don’t try drugs before the age of 25 almost never become addicted to drugs in their lifetimes.
* Of the 4.9 million criminal incidents in the United States in 2015, 687,852 were for drug offenses - about 14 percent.22 Most of these were not federal charges, but arrests made by state and local law enforcement.
* Illegal drug activity has both an economic and human cost to individuals and society. Reducing drug usage is key to making Americans healthier and decreasing the cost of healthcare; enhancing American productivity and competitiveness; reducing crime and violence; securing our communities from violent gangs and the drug trafficking organizations they work with; encouraging responsibility in adults and keeping healthy families together. None of these can effectively be accomplished by a country that is increasingly high and harmed by drug use.
* It is becoming increasingly difficult in the United States to find applicants who will pass pre-employment drug tests. The country has a growing drug problem and it is spilling over into the workplace. A leading drug testing company (Quest Diagnostics), which does millions of drug tests for employers, is reporting increases in the detection rate of amphetamines, heroin, and marijuana for the fifth straight year. It is now at a 10 year high.23